The John Gotti of the Russian Mafia

The John Gotti of the Russian Mafia

Mourners stand near the grave of Russian mafia godfather Vyacheslav Ivankov, known as Yaponchik or Little Japanese, at Vagankovskoye cemetery October 13, 2009 in Moscow, Russia. Ivankov died in hospital aged 69 on October 9, 2009 from injuries sustained during a sniper attack on July 28 .

SourceKonstantin Zavrazhin/Getty

Why you should care

Because Vyacheslav K. Ivankov was the last in a line of old-school Russian Mafia.

The funeral in Moscow’s 18th-century Vagankovo Cemetery was a blinged-out affair, even by mob standards. Vyacheslav K. Ivankov, aka Yaponchik (“Little Japanese”), was going out in style, like gangster royalty.

A hardened survivor of the gulags, the 5-foot-6 mobster was covered with tattoos denoting his high rank in the Russian Mafia — the vory (“thieves-in-law”). Ivankov’s elevated status was vory v zakone (“thief within the code”), and as such, he had been sent to the U.S. in 1992 to organize the Russian gangs of New York. And now, here he was on a brisk October day in 2009, back home for good, a victim of a bold assassination.

I heard about [Ivankov] when he landed in Brooklyn. He was sent here to shake things up.

Palve “Punch” Stanimirovic, a founder of the Pink Panthers jewel heist crew

Scores of mob bosses in pinstripe suits, flanked by bodyguards, lined up to pay their respects to a fallen comrade. With all the grandiosity of The Godfather, Yaponchik was laid to rest. Along with a black marble tombstone was a life-size statue of the deceased wearing a thoughtful expression, not his more typical ferocious glare. State police videotaped the entire event as part of their attempt to piece together the vory hierarchy.

The hit on Ivankov proved that the Russian Mafia’s dominance in the criminal underworld was nearly over. The much-feared thief-in-law had proved human after all. Putin was firmly in power, and younger gangsters didn’t abide by the old rules. Ivankov’s word had once been law; in the end, it meant little.

“Ivankov was as old-school as can be, a graduate of numerous terms behind barbed wire,” says Mark Galeotti, author of The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia. “He’s still a legend in the Russian underworld but very much a figure from a past age — the last of the Mohicans, as one gangster told me.” Like the vor portrayed by Viggo Mortensen in the film Eastern Promises, Ivankov came up in the harsh regime of the gulag, a brutal and harrowing world of corruption.

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Vyachelav Ivankov, fourth from left, and Leonid Abellis, third from left, are escorted by FBI agents from the agency’s New York headquarters on June 8, 1995.

Source Monika Graff/AP

“Body tattoos tell a story the vor can read,” notes Palve “Punch” Stanimirovic, a Serbian-American founder of the Pink Panthers, a brazen jewel heist crew. Once criminals enter the vor, it’s like they’re made men, and they must follow the rules, says the safe cracker extraordinaire — no working for anyone else, no jobs in prison, no hesitation to help a brother. “The hard-core ones don’t have families of their own,” says Stanimirovic. “This brotherhood is their family. When they’re called, they must drop everything and meet their brothers.”

When Ivankov was released from a Russian prison in 1991, he was already a man of status. The gangsters with business and political interests took one look at the fierce vor and bid him journey to New York and get their interests there in order. They viewed Ivankov as a threat to their power in Moscow and wanted him as far away as possible. Ivankov’s assignment: Get all the Russian gangs of New York under one flag. But in reality, he was being exiled — albeit to some place far more comfortable than the gulag.

“I heard about him when he landed in Brooklyn,” Stanimirovic says. “He was sent here to shake things up.” And that he did. Meeting with little resistance in New York’s gangland, Ivankov became huge overnight and was so powerful and feared he soon threatened La Cosa Nostra. By 1995, he’d patched together a criminal network — and then came a federal indictment for extortion.

Stanimirovic met Ivankov in the summer of 1997 at the Metropolitan Correction Center, New York, where both men were fighting indictments (Stanimirovic was arraigned on federal robbery charges). The Russian liked the Serbian-American — Punch was a stickup kid after his own heart. The Pink Panther remembers the Russian as a quiet, serious man who never spoke more than a few words to anyone. His English was limited to curses and phrases like “I will kill you.”

Both Stanimirovic and Ivankov eventually were transferred to club fed at Otisville, northwest of New York City. Punch was in for six years for robbery; the Little Japanese man, nine years. There, Yaponchik lived in silence and emotional solitude. When other prisoners on the pod were watching TV, the vor was shuffling cards in the corner, observing everything around him for hours on end.

Not that the Russian was concerned about surviving in American prisons. To him, it was a Mickey Mouse hitch — a jail he called sweet, one with every luxury. Punch and the Russian lived well in lock-up, bribing a guard not to bring in drugs but to smuggle in food and drink — Beluga caviar on crackers and vodka to wash it down. “He enjoyed the food I made,” says Stanimirovic. “He was the first real boss of this magnitude I’d met, the John Gotti of the Russians. He had all the respect from everyone.”

Punch did close to 20 years on federal and state counts; he’s now a free man. After serving eight years at OtisvilIe, Ivankov was deported to Russia in 2004 to face murder charges. He beat the rap and began disrupting the Moscow underworld — enforcing hits, grooming newbies and putting out fires between rival gangsters.

It didn’t last. When he tried to mediate a dispute between two Georgian-born mobsters, Ivankov put himself in the line of fire. On July 28, 2009, a sniper shot from one of the two squabbling squads took down the legendary tough guy. It took him two and a half months to die from his wounds and receive his lavish send-off.

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